[13 March 2013]
For a group credited with igniting the Britpop movement, Suede has remained strangely idiosyncratic. There’s no denying that the London band’s reference points are fairly transparent (one part Ziggy Stardust, one part Smiths… ) But when the patriotic spirit of Britpop swept through Albion’s indie scene in the mid-1990s, Suede’s dark, trashy glamor and androgynous leanings were nowhere near as frequently emulated as Oasis’ laddish populism or Blur’s middle-class cheekiness. Like Pulp, there was an undercurrent of desperation and malaise in Suede’s music that put it at odds with the celebratory spirit of the times. The music of Suede was meant to soundtrack young lives with nowhere to go, for whom the spare fleeting moments of bliss are found only in sex that blurred gender boundaries and narcotic excess. If Britpop was about living for today, Suede was concerned with leaving behind a beautiful corpse.
In grossly simplified terms, sex and drugs summarize the Suede story. The band’s initial lineup included guitarist and future Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, who at the time was in a relationship with singer Brett Anderson. Following their breakup and Frischmann’s departure (who then hooked up with Blur pin-up Damon Albarn—cue altera-rock soap opera), his songwriting partnership with guitarist Bernard Butler deepened, and Anderson’s lyrics grew more distinctive as he began to explore homosexual themes and imagery. Suede shelved its first stab at a single, “Be My God”/“Art”, so the group’s recorded career began properly with “The Drowners” single in 1992, the first in what became a line of lustrous a-sides that shone brightly in a scene having to content itself with the likes of 18 Wheeler and Kingmaker. In those singles, the music press heard talent, ambition, and moxie. They went bananas for them, and the British public soon followed.
Yet Suede’s career has not been a steady stream of triumphs. Dog Man Star lived up to the “difficult second album” stereotype; after all was said and done, Butler had left the band, and its lukewarm reception had driven Suede’s stock down. Even after Suede regained its footing with Coming Up in 1996, some ill-advised electronic impulses and—more damaging—Anderson’s drug addiction would continue to bog down what had once been British indie’s great guitar hope. Then after 2002’s A New Morning, Suede called it quits. Though Anderson and Butler rekindled their friendship and formed the Tears, and Suede eventually joined the rock reunion rollcall in 2010, it seemed that Suede’s line of a-sides had shuttered down for good.
But it turns out the story isn’t over. Suede is due to release its first album in 11 years, Bloodsports, next week. More to the point, its first single “It Starts and Ends with You” reaffirms the band’s capacity for turning out impeccable a-sides is back in full effect. The absence of “It Starts and Ends with You” from our final list is by no means an indication that it’s a weak single—on the contrary, the quality of Suede’s ‘90s output is so solid that many other worthy songs unfortunately could not make it. Admittedly, our staff-selected list ended up being comprised solely of material from 1992 through 1997. But the caliber of those singles is so great, such an end result shouldn’t be too surprising, or too outrageous. Join us as we celebrate Suede and its mastery of one of Britain’s great modern artistic traditions: the pop single.
“Seek a! / Star!” Brett Anderson first squeaks, his voice as grating as it is beckoning. “So Young” was the fourth single from Suede’s debut, but don’t discount it as a mere milking of product—it is the opening track on that LP, after all. It’s a good choice for that position, serving as a nigh-perfect introduction to all the defining aspects of Suede: the thriftstore glamor, the seedy sexuality, the slightly self-serious posturing, and the ever-present influence of intoxicants. Indeed, though sex has long been the chief talking point in regards to all things Suede, the drug imagery is just as important to the band’s oeuvre. Anderson’s declarations of the possibilities of youth could be taken as yet another of his expressions of carnal lust, but the damning phrase “Let’s chase the dragon / Home…” leaves no doubt as to what he’s really craving. That admission of narcotic inclinations adds a dark edge to the song’s enveloping euphoria, and considering Anderson’s own problems with addiction, a touch of sadness as well. Even so, “So Young” is alluring… perhaps dangerously so, given its subject matter. —AJ Ramirez
Despite the deathly, glacial skyline across Dog Man Star there was one divine beam of healing pop light that shone bright: “The Wild Ones”. A lush, universal, timeless melody of pining romance that remains Suede’s finest contribution to the Great British Songbook. This one shoots Cupid’s arrow pure ‘n’ sharp, straight for the heart and almost two decades on remains a real killer. A vintage ballad that many a pair of star cross’d lovers would cherish and blessed with the luxurious, majestic melancholia that once made Ol’ Blue Eyes sparkle in the rain. It could have even been the burning, tormented ache inside Rick’s heart as he bid his beloved Ilsa farewell in Casablanca. “As I open the blinds in my mind / I’m believing that you could stay…” Whipsmart yet sincere and touching, it still stings true with the invigorating poison of love. Twice as heartbreaking then as Suede’s stock went South in winter ‘94 it barely tickled the chart, which likely means some lucky scamp will one day reap its reward and take it to the toppermost of the poppermost where it surely belongs. —Matt James
By sitting out the year of the Britpop Revolution 1995, many assumed the fallen pioneers Suede had blown it, bitten the dust and would never return for their share of the gold being miraculously bestowed upon the indie-pop world. As gormless chumps like Shed Seven, Menswe@r, Dodgy, Sleeper and basically anybody with a guitar and a Beatles songbook gorged themselves on truffles and caviar, the fractured Suede were allegedly languishing in Performance-style bedlam rotting in a pit of hashish, heroin and sunken cheekbones. No-one saw “Trash” and its mothership Coming Up... well, coming. It landed like a blinding light followed by a parting of the waves. One semi-mythical, feared “Back in Black” outlaw gang (albeit underfed and well-coiffured) rolling into town to upset the Britpop Tea Party, delivering this bulletproof überpop firecracker shimmering with Bowie swagger n’ laced with Wildean wit. BAMMO! Euro Enormohit! BOKKO! Number one album! Suede were newly polished f’sure but this was no truce with the beery, “Bulldog Spirit” lads’ mag, “Tits oot at the Groucho Club” frivolity of the age. Suede were still “Those Freakin’ Weirdos”. Stranger still when it became apparent these thin black dukes couldn’t be killed by conventional weapons they became somehow oddly, enticingly “dangerous”. Perennial outsiders even in victory. —Matt James
Maybe “New Generation” isn’t cut from the same cloth as the classic three-minute singles Suede had made its name on, but it’s a fitting expression of the group’s more ambitious agenda for its second album, Dog Man Star. A sprawling, extravagant anthem, “New Generation” proved to be a triumphant statement of purpose that didn’t just pay lip service to a new generation, but made a play to speak for it. Its lyrics feel almost panoramic as they tell of day-to-day realities and how to escape them, vivid and romantic without the lurid quality of Suede’s best-known songs up to that point. When Brett Anderson hits the line, “It’s like a new generation calling / Can you hear it call?,” he does so with all the drama and conviction of an honest-to-goodness rallying cry signaling that Suede’s—and its generation’s—time had come. But by when the last single off Dog Man Star had been released, the Anderson-Butler era was long gone, with “New Generation” a nod to what once was rather than a new high water mark in a reign that should’ve lasted longer. —Arnold Pan
After an incendiary summer of drugs, rumours, more drugs and mystical axeman Bernard Butler being thrown to the lions/happily jumping overboard (delete where applicable), Suede’s urchin empire was seemingly crumbling into the abyss. With their tragic masterpiece Dog Man Star looming on the horizon like an ominous, apocalyptic thundercloud, Suede released truly the oddest “comeback” of the age. “We Are the Pigs” was a screaming, scarlet, Pistols-esque fireball through the windows of your safe European home. Anderson conjures a simmering Ballardian dystopia whilst spitting with bitter venom a cracked ‘n’ curs’d prophecy of paranoia, guns, riots, nuclear war and smack. The baffled pop press hated it. Radio ignored it. MTV shuddered at the nightmarish A Clockwork Orange-inspired video. Just months earlier “Stay Together’s” epic kissyfit valentine had conquered all, but “Pigs” failed to bring home the bacon and stiffed at No. 18. Suede were—to fans’ contrary delight—outsiders again. As the gravy train careered off the tracks into the depths a Greek chorus of feral nippers gravely chant with dead-eyed glee, “We will watch them, we will watch them…burn”. In the gutter a Dog, Man, Star, is slowly reborn… —Matt James
If comeback single “Trash” was the sound of Suede regaining its second wind after being dismissed as a viable contender in any battle for Britpop’s title, its follow-up “The Beautiful Ones” was the knockout punch. The joy of “The Beautiful Ones” is in how it presents the now five-piece ensemble audibly reassured and revitalized after a period of setbacks. From its bouncy riff (a immediately grabbing guitar line that by rights should elevate Richard Oakes above the “replacement Bernard Butler” jibes he was initially subjected to) and swaggering beat, to Anderson’s klaxon call chorus and flirty wordplay, it was the catchiest a-side Suede had delivered since “Stay Together”, or maybe even “Animal Nitrate”. “You don’t think about it / You don’t do without it / Because you’re beautiful / Yeah, yeah”, Anderson exhalts in the masterfully executed bridge that does what all middle-eights should do, boost a track to another level. You’ll shake your bits to this hit, surely. —AJ Ramirez
“The Drowners” was the one that started it all, Suede’s first single and as good a place as any to begin an origin story for Britpop. Coming on the heels of a Melody Maker cover touting Suede as “The Best New Band in Britain”, “The Drowners” lived up to hype, the first of the group’s triumvirate of singles. Intro’d to Simon Gilbert’s booming drums, with Bernard Butler’s guitar locking in with ‘em, “The Drowners” is more rhythmic and grooving than the other singles from the self-titled debut, more of a sashay than a strut. Lyrically, Brett Anderson more than made good on the androgynous polysexuality he played up in the media with his immortalized soundbite about being a “bisexual man who never had a homosexual relationship”: when Anderson suggestively croons, “When he writes the line, wrote down my spine / It says, ‘Oh, do you believe in love there?’, the possibilities, permutations, and perspectives seem endless. But it’s the line, “We kiss in his room to a popular tune”, that’s the most telling here: Circa 1992, that make-out song Anderson’s referring to should be “The Drowners”. —Arnold Pan
My god. Stately and sweeping, I argue that this overblown slice of “us against the world” melodrama is the one moment where Suede truly matched the gravitas of their idols. Anderson holds court like a true star with his skyscraping coos, but the song is ultimately Butler’s. The guitarist’s opulent layers of overdubs help elevate what could’ve been a throwaway stopgap single into his magnum opus, his final triumph before exiting the band in 1994. Whether in its radio-ready edit or its full-bore eight-minute incarnation (by all means, give it a listen), “Stay Together” is magnificence on a level that few from the Britpop era ever matched. —AJ Ramirez
The highest charting of Suede’s unholy trinity of early singles, “Animal Nitrate” is also the most debauched and decadent of the trio, which is saying something. Coming out in February 1993 in advance of the self-titled debut’s release a month later, “Animal Nitrate” dropped any trace of coyness, dispensed with the pleasantries, and got down-and-dirty, especially when Anderson sneered, “Oh, in your council home, he jumped on your bones / Now you’re taking it time after time”. And yet, even if there’s nothing particularly tender about a song with a title that riffs on stimulant-fueled pleasure seeking and fairly brutal lyrics on paper, the combo of Butler’s glammed-up guitars and Anderson’s desperate crooning conveyed an idea of romance all Suede’s own. If anything, the song’s anthemic, exuberant sound made it feel more transcendent than transgressive, especially as Butler’s climbing guitar lines reached for the stars and made all the chit-chat about sexual mores white noise. So when Anderson asks “What does it take to turn you on?” near the end of the song, it’s a rhetorical question that Suede knew the answer to with the historic run of singles that launched its career. —Arnold Pan
If debut 45 “The Drowners” triggered a wave of whispers to the underground resistance of waifs ‘n’ strays to join hands and unite, “Metal Mickey” was the full-on, electrified siren to rise up and take ov-ah. A three-and-a-half-minute snot-nosed, two-fingered, air raid warning that things were gonna change muthafuckers. A classic Suede yarn of being led into temptation by some sultry, tempestuous devil… and the subsequent bollocking from your dad. Sharing its name with a shambolic ‘80s UK TV show about a shoddy robot, “Metal Mickey” is a headspinning, neighbour-bothering barrage of carnivorous carnality set to a ravenous, blitzkrieg bop of chainsaw guitars, handclaps and glitter stomp heels. A clandestine revolution forged in dark alleys, dingy basements and expertly executed in torn, lipstick-stained blouses, Chelsea boots and second hand suits. The subtext to “Mickey” was perfectly interpreted by one pacified nation’s silent minority… “MY BEAUTIFUL FREAKS! YOUR TIME IS NOW! STORM THE BARRICADES!” We heard you, loud and clear. —Matt James